Category Archives: Writing

Gear Review: Bolt-On™ Virtua-Trekker

HeadsetFor the last few months I’ve been cutting a dash on the hills wearing the wrap-round headset pictured above. It’s the core component of the new Virtua-Trekker—the first application of Virtual Reality for the hill-walker or fell-runner—and the nice people at Bolt-On™ Cybernetics have been kind enough to give me an early prototype to review. I’ve been under a press embargo until today (April 1st), and I’m also obliged to let Bolt-On™’s lawyers review my proposed text before it goes live—hopefully they won’t find too many commercially sensitive details to object to.

Bolt-On™ have a long history as developers of hi-tech outdoors equipment. In the mid-90s, trading as the Bolt-On™ Corporation, they hit the market with a succession of emergency “surgical management” devices for hill-goers, most famously their Leg Repair Kit—a simple external fixator designed to be applied to a broken leg by either the casualty or a companion, stabilizing the fracture so as to allow the injured person to walk off the hill unaided. These were surprisingly cheap and initially sold well, but a number of high-profile adverse outcomes dogged the company into the early 2000s, culminating in a civil lawsuit brought on behalf of [REDACTED] which was eventually settled for [REDACTED]. Bolt-On™ effectively went dark for a decade thereafter, rumoured to be [REDACTED], before re-emerging as Bolt-On™ Cybernetics a couple of years ago, with a new mission statement to supply Augmented Reality products for outdoors activities.

The Virtua-Trekker is their flagship device, consisting of the goggles illustrated above with a visual field of [REDACTED] degrees containing [REDACTED] pixels in each lens, a GPS receiver/processor unit about the size of a small [REDACTED] and weighing [REDACTED] which can be carried in any reasonably sized rucksack, an optional microphone for the voice-recognition interface, and an accelerometer-glove (right hand only) for the gestural interface. The whole assembly is designed to lay what Bolt-On™ call Annotated Reality on to the user’s view of the outdoors—navigational information, weather updates, data tagging of landscape features, and so on. The various components can be connected to each other by cable or Bluetooth, and the processor unit can be linked to a home network for updates, data backup, and the transfer of waypoints and route files in several standard formats.

EASE OF USE

The processor connected readily to my wireless network. I was able to download the North Britain dataset from the Bolt-On™ website without difficulty—I understand access to a range of datasets, including [REDACTED], will be a subscription service when the device is released commercially. I was also able to transfer route files in *.gpx format from my PC’s mapping software to the device.

GPS reception seems to be generally stable, though I did encounter a certain amount of what Bolt-On™ refer to as “intermittent route lurch” while passing through dense forest, and one episode of “secular route drift” on steep ground.

The rechargeable batteries for the unit seem to have a lifetime of about four hours, so spares will need to be carried for all but the shortest trips.

The goggles are comfortable to wear in cool weather, but can become a little claustrophobic when it’s warm. My unit displayed a tendency to internal fogging when I exerted myself, but the Bolt-On™ technicians assure me this is unlikely to happen for someone who is “reasonably fit”. Rain on the lenses is an issue, and the hydrophobic wipes provided were only a partial solution. The bulky headgear certainly attracted attention—most people I encountered expressed interest, some were sympathetic, and a small number were verbally abusive.

I was unable to test the real-time weather update feature, which reportedly adds a graphical representation of approaching weather fronts to the virtual environment. This feature requires 3G network coverage, which was of course completely absent in the Scottish Highlands.

The voice-recognition interface functioned poorly in all but light winds, and I soon abandoned its use. The gestural interface is intuitive, allowing the user to tap through various function menus (presented at a virtual distance of about a metre). However, it can send unintended signals during normal hand movements. For example, while unscrewing the cap of my flask I inadvertently and unexpectedly accessed an “Easter Egg” routine—a game mode called Zombie Apocalypse that was quite distressing at the time. The programmers tell me that its presence will be properly flagged in the instruction manual of the commercial product, though they did seem a little disappointed that I hadn’t enjoyed the experience more.

NAVIGATION MODE

Basic navigation mode includes a direction indicator in the upper field of view, a route trace, annotated waypoints, and a set of “data packets” attached to various landscape features. I found the route trace (which laid my intended route on to the landscape as a red line) invaluable, especially in poor visibility.

Virtua-Trekker 1
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Virtual-Trekker 2
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The data packets available in my unit opened what appeared to be copies of Wikipedia pages, which were of neither use nor interest, occasionally fatuous and often misplaced.

VIEW MODE

View mode provides the names of landscape features visible on the horizon—which should finally put a stop to those endless “Can you see Schiehallion from here?” arguments.

Virtua-Trekker 5
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Switching to “mist mode” also provides an overlay sketch of the horizon itself, allowing the user to “enjoy the view” even when real-world visibility is restricted to a few metres. While the Bolt-On™ technicians seemed proud of the amount of processing required to produce this feature in real time, I found it tantalizing and annoying rather than useful.

Virtua-Trekker 6
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THE “NAISMITH WALKER”

This is one of the most innovative features of the kit. In default mode, it generates a virtual hiker who moves at a steady speed determined by Naismith’s Rule (a method of calculating the time required to complete a walk of given distance and ascent). The formula parameters are customizable (including an allowance for descent, which will be welcomed by those whose knees are of a certain age). Fell-runners are served by “Naismith Runners” of varying degrees of fitness, all suitably lean and lycra-clad.

Virtua-Trekker 3
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The Naismith Walker provides a ready estimate of how quickly (or slowly) you are progressing relative to your aspirational timings. It can be a little unsettling, however, to pause for a breather on a steep slope only to have the virtual Walker pass through you from behind and stride away uphill.  The interface provides a small selection of Walker avatars to choose from—male or female, young or old. I also discovered the option to have the Walker appear in the form of Death—a flying, black-hooded skeleton carrying a scythe. (I presume this was inserted by the same programmers who provided me with a Zombie Apocalypse halfway up the Stone Chute on Beinn Eighe.)

One disadvantage of the Walker’s steady pace is that the virtual figure falls well behind on flat ground, but quickly catches up during the ascent. After I turned around to see the figure of Death sweeping up the misty slopes of Ben Loyal towards me, I turned off the Naismith Walker.

Virtua-Trekker 4
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When I later remarked to the Bolt-On™ representatives that watching the approach of the Death avatar was a little reminiscent of the plot of the 2014 horror film It Follows, they became visibly excited. I understand they are now in licensing negotiations with the film’s production company.

VERDICT

A remarkable and innovative piece of kit that nevertheless has [REDACTED].

Life Imitates Art

Mechanical trousers will help turn mountains into molehills (Times: May 12, 2016)An article by Tom Whipple in The Times today (May 12, 2016) reports on a set of powered trousers designed by Panizollo et al. and described in an article published today by the Journal of Neuroengineering and Rehabilitation:A biologically-inspired multi-joint soft exosuit that can reduce the energy cost of loaded walking“.

The authors conclude:

Our results demonstrate that an autonomous soft exosuit can reduce the metabolic burden experienced by load carriers, possibly augmenting their overall gait performance.

The overall reduction in work associated with walking is around seven per cent—”something you can just about feel”, according to one of the authors (Walsh), quoted in The Times. That’s in line with previous studies of other devices, which the authors mention in the Discussion section of their paper (my link takes you to the full-text, Open Access article).

Whipple sees an application to hillwalking:

It will be just enough, in other words, that you can turn up at your local Ramblers’ Association and make the other walkers feel inadequate, without also making them suspicious.

All this is very gratifying to me, since I invented the device (fictionally, at least) a good 23 years ago, when I wrote a story entitled “Lachlan and the Bionic Long-Johns”, in which my hero Lachlan McLoughlin takes on various hill challenges while wearing something rather similar. My version worked rather better (that’s the joy of fiction, of course), and you can see it in action in Chris Tyler‘s lovely cartoon on the rear cover of my (long out-of-print) book Munro’s Fables (TACit Press, 1993):Rear cover of Munro's Fables(You can nowadays find the story in the e-book The Complete Lachlan or the paperback The Complete Lachlan & Walking Types.)

I can’t really claim all the credit, though. The idea of a powered exoskeleton has been around since at least 1959, when Robert Heinlein described a full-body version in his novel Starship Troopers.

Biggles FRCA

Biggles FRCA cover
A cover botched up by The Oikofuge, from an original Air Service recruiting poster by Otho Cushing (1917)

Of the research I’ve done, and the opinion pieces I’ve had published during my professional life, only one article seems to have had any lasting impact. It’s Biggles FRCA.

I wrote it on a whim one Sunday afternoon in 1998, and sent it off to a free magazine that was then being distributed to my profession in the UK, Today’s Anaesthetist. It saw print in the July/August edition that year. They spelled my name wrongly, and added a typo that changed the sense of one important sentence. I wasn’t particularly concerned—it was just a bit of whimsy, after all.

And then something odd happened. People laminated it and stuck it up on the wall of their common room. At meetings, colleagues were seeking me out to ask if I was the one who’d written Biggles FRCA. After a while, a plain text version showed up as an e-mail attachment that went the rounds intermittently. A bit later, people started to post it on their blogs—sometimes with appropriate attribution, sometimes not.

My little bit of whimsical fluff had turned into an Internet Phenomenon, albeit at a strictly homeopathic level. And it’s still out there, rattling endlessly around the blogosphere. It has even been cited in a scientific journal* and a textbook (the latter being the only time I will ever appear in a reference list that also includes “Shakespeare W” and “Wodehouse PG”).

So I thought it was time to repossess it—which also gives me the chance to remove the accumulated typos, get my name spelled properly, and give due credit to its original publishers.

By way of explanation: Biggles is the pilot hero of a series of novels written by Captain W.E. Johns (you probably knew that); FRCA is the Fellowship of the Royal College of Anaesthetists, a postgraduate qualification that is a marker of due professional training for UK anaesthetists. The story came about because of a then-popular analogy (popular among anaesthetists, that is) comparing the process of anaesthetizing a patient for surgery with flying an aeroplane. Putting the patient to sleep was like the take-off, maintenance of anaesthesia during surgery was like level flight, waking the patient up was like the landing. Various allegedly informative parallels were drawn. Biggles FRCA found humour by taking that analogy and running with it, putting poor Biggles into the cockpit of an aeroplane that was behaving as if it were a patient undergoing surgery.

I should add a disclaimer, I suppose. I believe strongly that the aviation industry has many lessons to teach health-care practioners. Aviation engineers and pilots have a deep understanding of the failure modes of complex systems operated by fallible humans, and have developed ways of minimizing the associated risks.  And anaesthetists are nowadays working hard to learn from the aviation model. However, all that serious and important stuff is a world away from the rather simple-minded analogy I was poking fun at in Biggles FRCA.

So here it is—the full, corrected text appears below. For fun, I’ve also put it together in downloadable form as a pdf and in a couple of e-book formats. (And if you download one of the e-books, you also get the fine cover page featured at the top of this post!)

pdf
mobi (zipped file, for the Amazon Kindle)
epub (zipped file, a generic e-book format)


* Vickers MD. The psychology of human error. European Journal of Anaesthesiology 1999; 16: 578
Nethercott D, The Fundamental Principles of Anaesthesia. In: Cottle D, Laha S, eds Anaesthetics for Junior Doctors and Allied Professionals: The Essential Guide. London: Radcliffe Publishing, 2013


BIGGLES FRCA
by
Grant Hutchison

First published in Today’s Anaesthetist Vol.13 No.4 July/August 1998

LORD, IF ONE MORE PERSON tells me that giving an anaesthetic is like flying a plane, I will swing for them, I really will.

Look. The whole point of a plane is that it is designed to fly, and if it’s not working properly then you don’t take it off the ground. Human beings, in contrast, are not designed to be anaesthetized, and are often not working properly when the occasion arises. They are also rather poorly provided with back-up systems and spares, and frequently have long histories of inadequate servicing.

So if giving an anaesthetic is like flying a plane, then this must be what flying a plane is like:

Captain James Bigglesworth DSO stepped out into the thin sunlight, and took a deep breath of the damp air. It was good to be alive. He was taking up a new crate today, and he relished the little knot of mixed tension and anticipation that always formed at the pit of his stomach under such circumstances. He strode briskly towards the hangar.

The Junior Engineer was waiting next to the aeroplane. He handed Biggles a single sheet of paper, on which he had scrawled a haphazard note of his work on the craft.

“Is this all?” asked Biggles. “Where is the service record?”

“It seems to be lost. The filing department say it’s maybe still at the previous airfield.”

“And the manual?”

The Junior Engineer looked startled. “I don’t think there is one. We thought you knew how to fly a plane.”

A cloud drifted slowly across the sunny sky of Biggles’ mind. He began his walk-round.

“Where’s this oil coming from?”

The Junior Engineer frowned seriously. “I don’t know.”

Biggles sighed. But he too, long ago, had once been a Junior Engineer. “Where do you think it might be coming from?”

“The engine?” hazarded the youth.

“Of course. So what’s the oil level in the engine?”

“I don’t know.”

“Have you checked the oil level?”

“No.”

Biggles could feel his voice becoming a little tight, a little cold. “So could you check it now, please?”

“What? Now?”

“Now.”

“But you’re just going to take off. The Chief Engineer wants you to take off right away.”

“Not without an oil level. And this undercarriage strut is broken. And the port aileron is jamming intermittently.”

At that moment, the Chief Engineer arrived. “Biggles, old chap! Ready to take her up? Good man.”

“She’s not remotely airworthy. I need an oil level and some basic repairs.”

The Chief Engineer sighed. “What do you want an oil level for? You know it’s going to be low. We’ve got to get her into the air before we can control the leak. And that undercarriage and aileron aren’t going to get any better while we stand here. She needs to be in flight before I can properly assess them. Come on, old chap—the tower’s given us a slot in ten minutes’ time. If we don’t take off then, we’ll be waiting all day.” He eyed the plane despondently, and tapped a tyre with the toe of his boot. “And, frankly, I don’t think she’ll last much longer.”

Biggles rippled the muscles of his square jaw. The Bigglesworths had never balked at a challenge, but this … Well, there seemed to be no way out of it. He was going to have to take the old crate into the air, just as she stood. Deuced bad luck, of course, but no point in whining.

Twenty minutes later, they were aloft. The plane kept trying to fly in circles, and the engine temperature gauge was sitting firmly in the red. The Engineer was out on the cowling with a spanner.

“Just turn her off for a bit,” he bawled over the clattering roar of the sick engine.

Biggles was astonished. “What?

“Turn off the engine. There’s nothing I can do about this leak until the engine’s stopped.”

Reluctantly, Biggles turned off the engine, and trimmed the aircraft for a shallow glide. The weight of the Engineer, out there on the nose, was not helping matters at all.

Four minutes passed in eerie silence, as the treetops swam up to meet them. “I’m going to need power again soon.” There was no response from the Engineer. Another thirty seconds passed. “I need power.” No answer. “I’m turning on now.” The engine roared, and the Engineer recoiled, cursing, in a cloud of black smoke.

“What’s your game, Biggles, old man? I almost had the bally thing fixed, and now we’ll need to start all over again!”

Biggles bit back an angry retort, and concentrated on guiding the crippled plane upwards. This time, now that he knew what was going on, they would start their glide from a lot higher.

After another protracted glide, the Engineer clambered back into the cockpit, beaming. “All fixed!”

Biggles tapped the oil pressure gauge. “Pressure’s not coming up,” he said.

“It will, it will,” said the Engineer breezily. “Don’t be such a fusspot. Now let’s get the aileron sorted.”

He crawled out onto the wing, and began to strike the recalcitrant aileron with a hammer. A minute later, the plane rolled violently to the right. Biggles struggled momentarily for control, his lips dry. By cracky, they’d almost lost it completely, there.

“Don’t do that!” he called hoarsely to the Engineer.

“Do what?”

“Whatever you did, just then.”

“I wasn’t doing anything, old man.”

Almost at that moment the plane lurched again, more fiercely, and rolled through forty-five degrees. “That!” screamed Biggles, fighting the controls for his very life. “Don’t do that!

“Fair enough,” said the Engineer, cheerily. A minute later he did it again, and the plane was inverted for ten long seconds before a sweating Biggles regained any vestige of control.

“Fixed! Undercarriage next!” called the Engineer, and clambered out of sight below the fuselage.

Ten minutes later, Biggles caught brief sight of a set of wheels dropping away earthwards. “Couldn’t save ’em,” said the Engineer when he regained the cockpit. “Better off without them, frankly.”

“I still have very little oil pressure,” said Biggles, worriedly.

The Engineer pursed his lips and tapped the pressure gauge reflectively. “Well, the leak’s fixed, old man. Must be something about the way you’re flying her.” He reached under his seat and pulled out a parachute. “Look, I’m most frightfully sorry about this, but the nice men from Sopwith are taking me out to dinner tonight, so I’ve got to dash. Be a brick, Biggles old fellow, and just put her down anywhere you like. I’ll cast an eye over her in the hangar tomorrow morning.”

And with that, he was gone.

Biggles thought longingly of his own parachute. But he couldn’t abandon the old girl now. It wasn’t her fault, after all. Black, oily smoke was already billowing out of the engine cowling, however—he needed to put her down soon. He began to peer around for a flat place to land and, almost immediately, he spotted a distant grassy field. He moved the controls a little so that he could take a closer look.

He flew around the field once, and it certainly looked flat enough. Oddly, someone had painted huge white letters across the level green grass—I C U, it read. He had no idea what that meant, but it seemed vaguely comforting, for some reason. The engine coughed once, and then stopped. He could see a fitful orange glow beneath the cowling. This rummy ICU field would just have to do, it seemed.

As he swung the ailing aircraft around to make his final approach, he realized that the field was just a little too short for comfort. He licked his lips, and prayed that there would be enough room.

Writing: Introduction

When I was a solitary, bespectacled and distinctly oikotropic child growing up in Dundee, I seemed to be the only person in my class who brightened up when our English homework assignment was an essay. I liked writing.

The first time I actually (sort of) sold a bit of writing was in 1977. Punch magazine, then still in its late pomp, ran a “Student Humour” competition, inviting those in full-time education to write a comic piece about the year 2001. I bashed out my offering on a manual typewriter (with carbon paper) and posted it off—it placed second, was published in the Christmas issue, and scored me a cool £100, which was a very great deal of money. This was interesting …Punch front cover, Christmas 1977Looking at the piece now, on the far side of the year 2001, it’s a deeply bizarre item. It was entitled Employment Prospects.

In subsequent years, I got myself published in a odd variety of outlets. To give you an impression, I stacked some on the carpet and took a photo. It’s essentially the content of this blog, in nascent form:Publications I've written for

I’ve already mentioned my writing on words and natural phenomena elsewhere on the blog. But of all the stuff represented in the picture above, the only piece currently available on-line is a Wanderlust travel article about Chile.

In the early 90s I started writing for The Angry Corrie, Scotland’s First & Finest Hillwalker’s Fanzine. The editor of that fine organ was Dave Hewitt, who was setting up TACit Press at the time. I ended up writing a slim volume of humorous hill-walking stories for TACit, Munro’s Fables, beautifully illustrated with Chris Tyler‘s cartoons, and now long out of print.Munro's Fables coverSo twenty years later I was increasingly narked to see second-hand copies of Fables being sold on Amazon for more than the original cover price, with not a penny of it coming my way. I had the material for a sequel, but soon accumulated a stack of mostly complimentary rejection letters from publishing houses—they generally seemed to like the stories, but pointed out that the market for Scottish hillwalking humour just isn’t that big.

So in the end I put all the material together, old and new, and published two e-books myself. Chris Tyler did me a pair of covers, in his inimitable style:

Complete Lachlan coverWalking Types Omnibus coverWhen these sold pretty well, I was able to build a physical book as a compendium edition:Complete Lachlan & Walking Types coverIf you’re interested in knowing more about these, they have their own pages (click the covers above), and also appear under “My Books” in the menu bar.